Good afternoon everyone! Thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Twenty-One of The Cursed King. This is coming a little later in the day today, mainly because I was doing what I always do on the weekends and catch up on some serious sleep. With a week to go to Christmas, I am starting to get into the festive spirit and eating and drinking as much as I possibly can. I am only hoping this Christmas joy inspires my writing too. I’m still eleven or so chapters ahead, and have almost finished Chapter 32, so I am getting closer to the climactic events of the story.
In today’s Chapter, we are back in Silver City with Nadir as he begins to navigate the awkward deals that he has made with powerful people. Nadir wonders if he is truly small enough to go unnoticed and slip through the cracks in the stone of this old court without being caught (wordplay unintended). In this chapter, old friends return, secrets are revealed, and plots thicken. Thank you for reading, and look out for Chapter Twenty-Two which will be posted on January 2nd.
Nadir was silent as he tiptoed around the oak desk and poured water and wine into empty cups. It was a small meeting today, and yet the tension that hung in the air was as thick and humid as it was outside. It was a sunny day for Autumn, but it had come after days of rainfall, and Nadir watched as the men around the table physically slowed in their every action. Their speech droned and the way they lifted their cups to their lips was laborious. To Nadir, these men seemed that they would soon melt away, either through the humid heat or their own boredom.
One of the men around the table was Thair Spicer. Although Nadir remembered the spice merchant, the merchant did not remember Nadir. Either that or he just did not pay any attention to him. Why would he? Nadir was worried that his time spent with King Aedvard and Jerimeh had made him more visible to the prying eyes of the court, especially since the King of The Blacklands had already explained to him that he had spies all around Harthelm. Nadir also worried that King Aedvard would ask him to help him escape, but it seemed to Nadir that he had the power to leave whenever he wanted, and yet he seemed resigned to stay in that terrible cell.
The other men were Lord Grant, the keeper of the treasury, and Arkgodson Jerimeh, who had recently returned from a meeting of the Arkgodsons in Cesara. Only moments before, Thair Spicer had said something that bemused Nadir, but had caused the jovial nature of the meeting to descend into silence. Each man held up a hand to him as he went to pour their drinks, and so Nadir retired to his station for a few moments. He refilled the flagons and waited patiently for instruction. He appreciated these moments between working. His duties seemed to never end in this castle, and yet no matter how long he worked, it was never as hard as the hardest day working the fields. Each time Nadir spoke with Aedvard, he would answer the King’s questions, and in return, Aedvard would explain something that he organised to help find Nadir’s mother. It was as if he was still farming. Every question was a seed, and every answer was a crop that brought Nadir one step closer to his mother.
When Nadir told him that Lord Garrison organised the razing of Ashfirth, Aedvard told him that he had sent some scouts to Hunter’s Valley to search the steads and townships for his mother. When Nadir told him about the blacksmith’s girl and the Antinnan note, Aedvard said that he had sent letters to his spies around The Hartlands to find servants who matched her description and ask about her lost child. For every piece of information Nadir could give to Aedvard, the better his chances were of finding his mother. The King had done more in four weeks for the search for his mother than Jerimeh had done in almost four months.
“These permissions you ask for, Mister Spicer, they are usually the reserve of men of rank. In fact, even your son-in-law, who is an anointed knight, would not be free to move such an amount of goods through the city at such a low tariff. If I were to allow it, I’d have half the knights in this city barking for the same rate or better,” Lord Grant moaned as Nadir sat listening carefully by his station. Every morsel of information was vital. Anything he could possibly give back to Aedvard was a step towards finding his mother.
“Oh come now, Lord Grant. How many knights in this city are in the merchant game or even desire to be? These permissions are antiquated, let us be truthful here. Perhaps two-hundred, even one-hundred years ago these rules made sense, when a man could be given a Lordship for holding a door open for his King – no offence intended, my lord – but times are changing, and I simply must be able to expand my operation, lest I move my business elsewhere entirely,” Thair replied.
“Lord Grant, if I may, Mister Spicer has made generous donations to the Church, and has been an upstanding citizen since he arrived in Silver City over fifteen years ago. The business he brings to this city is considerable, and I dare say he could get a far greater deal in Maladh, Barajas or … forgive me, lord, even Duncath, should he choose to move his primary place of business,” Jerimeh added.
Lord Grant inspected the parchment before him and shook his head before looking at Jerimeh. “If I see those stone statues in the God’s Hall turn to gold then I will know who is responsible, your worship.” The treasurer had a round face covered in freckles with short, slightly curly black hair and a broad smile, as if he was always eager to please. He was a large man and not very tall, which mad him almost ball-shaped. He twirled one of the small curls atop his head in his finger and let out an exasperated sigh. “There is no doubt that we could use the extra trade, and these caps are definitely slowing what we can take in tax. I will agree to your terms, Mister Spicer, but only for six months initially so we can fully assess the financial benefits. At that point we may re-negotiate your tariff. During that time, I suggest you find a Lord who is eager to sell some land, there will be plenty bereft by the time this war is over, and should you find some land to purchase then I will suggest to King Aron that your purchase is approved and are given the rank of Lord, which will make my days far less troublesome. I trust this is satisfactory?”
Lord Grant extended his hand, and Thair Spicer could not hide the beaming smile which exposed his prominent front teeth. The spice merchant shook the treasurer’s hand, and the men got up hurriedly to leave. As the last man left the room, Nadir went over to the table to pick up the cups and bring them to his station. Nadir had little idea of what he had heard. He had almost fallen asleep in truth, but all he knew for sure was that Thair Spicer had just been offered a Lordship, which he was certain that King Aedvard would want to know about, particularly as Thair’s son-in-law, Sir Robert Talford, was away fighting in the war.
Moments after they had left, Jerimeh returned and slumped into a chair at the table. Jerimeh always looked fatigued, but he had never seen the Arkgodson with such a disregard for decorum. Throughout this meeting, and all his other meetings, Jerimeh sat with a straight back, engaged and articulated himself as if he was a man twenty years younger, and yet as soon as the men left, Jerimeh seemed to unravel. It was as though even the effort of sitting up had become too intense. Nadir was still angry with Jerimeh, but he could not help but feel sad for him, and poured him a glass of water, which he placed within reach of his palm.
“Thank you, Nadir.” Nadir nodded and walked towards his station. He had almost packed the silver tray when Jerimeh called out to him. “I am sorry,” the Arkgodson called, almost gasping for his breath. Nadir left the station and rushed over to him,
“Is everything okay, your worship?”
“Yes…yes. I am just tired. These long meetings are not good for me. It is not me I wish to discuss, Nadir. It is you. I have been disingenuous with you, and I must confess, I have not tried nearly as hard as I should have to help you find your mother. In truth, I have scarcely tried at all. I do not wish for your forgiveness, Nadir, but I want to help. Truly. I must help you.”
Nadir could hardly tell if anyone in this castle of castles was capable of such sincerity without desire for something in return. He had learned since his arrival that he was a tool that others wielded, and yet without the power or capacity to wield himself. Where had it gotten him? A handful of glass, a crossbow bolt to the shoulder and committing an act of treason right under the King’s nose. Nadir hardly knew who he was betraying, if anyone at all. I belong to The Blacklands, but The Hartlands gave me shelter and a purpose. Did he really owe them anything at all? The thoughts were too much to bear. He looked at Jerimeh and nodded.
“Thank you, your worship,” were the only words that he could muster.
It was a few days later when Nadir was interrupted from his lessons with Effei to join Jerimeh in his office. Nadir had only seen the room a few times. It was a gloriously decorated study with mahogany bookshelves polished so rigorously that they shone even in the dimmest of days. Even on a day like this, where the shutters were slammed shut because the wind and the rain hammered so relentlessly against the stone walls, it reflected the torchlight without sign of age or wear. Each bookshelf stretched from ground to ceiling and the books were lined up delicately, all in order and all seemingly in pristine condition, so perfect that Nadir was unsure if they had ever even been read.
As Nadir looked over the room in awe, he noticed a man sitting at the table. The man stood up immediately upon seeing him and gave him a broad smile, which Nadir mirrored and could not help but throw himself into the man’s stomach to hug him. Stillius patted him on the back tenderly and offered words of greeting, which seemed to just vanish into the air around him.
“You have grown taller, lest my eyes deceive me.”
Nadir did not respond for a moment. There was no need to. If there was a single man in the New World that he trusted, it was Stillius, and he refused to let the man go. “Do you have any news? Anything at all?”
“Some, lad. We have some. Please, take a seat.”
Nadir pulled away from Stillius and sat down upon the large wooden chair that was carved to look like tree branches entangled together. He never spent long in Jerimeh’s office. Mainly due to the fact that Jerimeh had spent so long agonising over the Antinnan Translation that he had scarcely seen him. Almost all of their efforts to find the merchant, to find the messenger, to find those involved in Queen Lorne’s poisoning had been thrown to the fire. Since Lorne’s death, Jerimeh had hardly seen the point in finding out the truth, whilst King Aron was so tied up in the war that it seemed Jerimeh had not had an audience with him in months. The God’s Hall, and Harthelm in general, was much quieter now, which did not help. As long as there was business and chaos, it was easier to sneak in to help King Aedvard, it was easier to hunt Silver City for the answers they needed. All three of them sat down, and Jerimeh spoke first from behind his large desk that had parchment carelessly strewn across it and four or five empty ceramic cups.
“Nadir, Stillius has some information. It is not much, but it at least focuses our direction.”
“One of the men who took your mother from Ashfirth was indeed one of Lord Garrison’s men. We received information in a letter sent to us last week concerning your mother. It was anonymous and its seal was plain, but the wax used was exceptional quality, only a lord or some other very rich man could have sent it. Whilst I am looking into the origin of the letter, its contents will need to be pursued. You see, your mother was sold for a fairly large sum to, who we believe to be, a well-known entity within The New World. On the face of things, he would appear to be a slaver, and yet, there is something strange about him.”
“Strange?” Nadir pressed.
“Well, most slavers who operate anywhere are not too particular about the slaves they buy. As long as they are of a certain age, are not sick or weak, a pair of hands is a pair of hands and produces far more in labour than they cost. And yet, this slaver will speak to the serfs and the slaves for a time before he decides to purchase them. He will sit them down, drink tea with them and then decide whether or not to purchase them. At first, I thought he was a do-gooder, out to free them from their binds, but he takes them somewhere, and then usually they are not seen again. Though do not fret. The Order has been following this man for some time, and we believe we have found one of his ships. It may take some time, but we are hoping that it leads us to the whereabouts of your mother. It is not much, but it is a lead.”
Nadir nodded dispassionately as if they had told him nothing at all. None of it was true. It could not have been. “If what you say is true, it seems as though my mother had a choice as to whether or not to go with this slaver. If that is what you have heard, then it is wrong. My mother would not leave me. She would not stop searching for me until she found me. You can follow the ship, but you will not find her there. You said the seal was blank and anonymous. It could be from Lord Garrison. Someone could have told him about the search and he is sending you chasing shadows,” Nadir told them, shocked that men of their stature could not understand what seemed to clear to him.
“It is the best chance we have,” Stillius said.
“No it isn’t!” Nadir growled. “The best chance to find her is to search every blade of grass in Hunter’s Valley. I will do it myself. Let me go from this castle and I will find her there, I know it.”
“It is not safe, lad. You are a lowborn boy with no family and no gold. You made yourself safe in the woods because you were not found, and you were lucky that it was Stillius and The Order that you came across and not the bandits or the wolves. You may have saved them, but you would have also been killed if not for them. Except for the fact that Lord Garrison organised the raid on your village, we have no reason at all to believe that your mother is in his Earldom. Slaves are generally sold rather than kept by the raiders,” Jerimeh explained.
“It is stupid not to check. You’re not checking because it would be suspicious to have someone snooping around. It’s easier to follow a boat to nowhere and tell me you couldn’t find her than to actually find her and bring her back without causing a fuss. I’m ten, I’m not stupid.”
The men looked at each other guiltily, as if they had been found out. Nadir could feel the blood boiling underneath his skin. A sharp gust of wind pulled the wooden shutters from their place and blew through the oriel, scattering Jerimeh’s parchment papers across the floor. Stillius put a hand on Nadir’s shoulder and leant down so they were eye to eye.
“I promise you, Nadir. This is not what we are doing. You are right. Should we find your mother in Hunter’s Valley, it would be…complicated…to retrieve her and bring her back to you. Once a healthy serf has been purchased, it can be hard to buy them out, particularly during wartime when labour is so valuable.”
Nadir calmed for a moment. He knew he had to be smarter in order to find her. He had to play their game, and be their ally. If he made these men his enemies then he could easily be disposed of. “At least check. Send someone to search and let me know if she’s there or not. I just need to know that she’s okay.”
The room was silent for a few moments until Stillius collected the papers from the floor and put them on Jerimeh’s desk. Jerimeh thanked him and exhaled deeply. “I have a suggestion. Nadir, I am going to need you to help me. I want you to speak to the blacksmith’s daughter privately, without her father present. I believe you can sneak onto the roof of their home and find a moment alone with her. She is not telling us the whole truth about who poisoned her. She may not trust me or Effei, but she trusts you. If you get her to talk to you, then I will send Sir Bethan to Hunter’s Valley under some guise or another, and he will search for your mother. If that is what you want.”
Again, Nadir was standing before Jerimeh, knowing that this deal could hurt him far more than it could hurt them. He could be caught and enslaved again and then who would help him? He was not sure. All he had was their word. He had no proof of the letter, no proof of their information and no proof that Sir Bethan would really search for his mother. Yet he had no choice. All he could do was what they asked, and pass whatever information he had to King Aedvard, and hope that at least one of these men would stand by their promise.
Alone in his chamber, Nadir rubbed at the scar on his arm, wondering how he would injure himself in Jerimeh’s next venture. He relished the chance to speak to Ellen. She was kind and quiet, always friendly to him and as pretty a girl as he’d seen. She reminded him of Emma and Emily from his village, and he wondered what had happened to them. All of the people he had been raised around were gone, and only strangers remained. He would never hear another one of Enid’s stories, and he wondered if he would ever fight with Anton again or laugh with Emma and Emily, or hug his mother. None of it seemed likely anymore, but he had no other option than to keep trying.
Dusk began to paint the sky a deep indigo as Nadir stepped out from his chamber. As he walked across the hallway, he spotted a creak in Effei’s door. The Godson was reading a piece of parchment, which he scrunched up and tossed into the roaring fire. Nadir pulled away from the door before Effei turned around and continued his walk through the corridor. Effei and Jerimeh had not spoken much since the Arkgodson’s return to the city. Effei had been the favoured religious council of Prince Asher and King Aron since the Prince’s arrival, and it seemed as though Jerimeh had been pushed to the side.
Nadir was chaperoned to Barthew Hart’s Priory in Silver City by Sir Bethan, where Jerimeh had spent the day helping Prior Anshelm deal with the influx of sick and infirm smallfolk that had begun to make their way into the city. Many of them were from the borderlands that had been raided much like Ashfirth, and sought refuge in Silver City. It was one of the only walled cities in the Kingdom, and by far the most likely to find true safety from the war. It was in seeing these bodies that Nadir realised how lucky he had it. All of these people who were just like him would likely die, if not immediately, either from disease or directly from the war itself. Any man able to hold a shovel would be thrust into battle, and would be lucky to return.
Sir Bethan ushered Nadir to the back of the Priory, where Jerimeh was waiting for him. The alley was damp and cold, and Nadir felt almost invisible in his black linens. Not far from the Priory was Smithsrow, where Nadir would sneak on to the roof to speak privately with Ellen. The wind was bitter and the surfaces were wet from Autumn rain. Nadir was slight and strong, but he worried about climbing such wet walls with little assistance and only an old man below him who would not be capable of catching his fall. Sir Bethan was to stand guard and stop him from being seen, but all it took was once glance from a nosey neighbouring home to catch Nadir from performing his task.
“How are you feeling, Nadir?” Jerimeh asked.
Tired. Angry. Alone. “Fine,” He replied.
Jerimeh did not push him. It was as if there was an invisible blockage between them, a solid wall of mistrust that neither seemed prepared to break through. Nadir wanted this over with, so that Jerimeh and Stillius would send Sir Bethan to Hunter’s Valley. He had no real affiliation with Sir Bethan, but it seemed that very few did. The knight was usually silent and dutiful, but seemed to withhold an empathy that shone in his green eyes even if the rest of his face denied any kind of feeling. He did not even stand with them, it was as if nothing was ever his business, and he was there simply because he was asked to be. Nadir looked over to him, as he leaned against the stony church, head-to-toe in the garb of the Royal Guard and he noticed the bulky shadow manoeuvre its way towards them.
“Ready?” Sir Bethan asked.
Nadir and Jerimeh nodded.
Navigating the alleyways of Silver City, they quickly found their way to Smithsrow and Jimmy the Smith’s home and workshop. It was a quiet street in the evening once the blacksmiths had closed up shop. The only streets that thrived after dusk here were taverns and the late-night tea houses with the red curtains. Once they arrived behind Jimmy’s home, Nadir immediately surveyed the building. He was not the best climber, but he could easily support his own weight and had on more than one occasion climbed a building to escape a chastising from his mother or Marc the Reeve in Ashfirth. All he needed was for Sir Bethan to lift him up so that he could pull himself onto the first ledge, from there he would use the wooden timbers to pull himself up and use the window ledges to go up to the next storey.
It was simple enough. All that was needed was a distraction. As Nadir needed Sir Bethan to lift him, Jerimeh took the responsibility of distracting Jimmy. No man in the city would refuse hospitality to the Arkgodson of The Hartlands, and Jerimeh played the frail old man who needed respite from his long walk back to Harthelm. As soon as Jimmy ushered Jerimeh into his home, Nadir stepped onto Sir Bethan’s interlocked hands and the knight hoisted him to the first ledge. It was slightly damp, but not nearly as slippery as Nadir had worried, and almost immediately had his foot on the window ledge. The next ledge above him was slightly worse, but he dug his fingers in and gripped as tightly as he could before pulling himself up to the next window and rested his knee precariously. He peeked in and saw Ellen sitting up with a candle lighting a piece of parchment.
Nadir felt panic as he looked down and saw that he was so high up that if he slipped, he would likely break a bone or two. He tapped on the window and Ellen shot up and made a face as if she was about to scream. Nadir quickly pulled down the scarf that covered his face and brought his finger up to his mouth. Ellen pulled open the window and Nadir immediately ssh’d her. She helped him in and Nadir crawled in as quietly as he could, but landed heavily on his feet, which caused a great thud. They both gasped.
“Is everything okay up there?” Jimmy shouted from below.
“Fine, father. I just dropped something,” Ellen called back before lowering her voice to a whisper. “Nadir…what are you doing here?”
Nadir hesitated. He did not think of what he would say when he actually arrived. He did not think he would get this far; such had his luck been since he’d arrived in this city. Nadir sat down on Ellen’s bed and rubbed his arm. “I wanted to talk to you in private, away from your father.” Nadir pulled the gold coin from his pocket. “Do you know what this is?” Nadir held it in front of her.
Ellen shook her head.
“Your father said that he found it in your pocket. He gave it to us when we last came to see you. He took it because he didn’t want to frighten you, but this coin isn’t known in The Hartlands. His worship says it’s a coin from the Old World – Antinna. Do you remember someone giving this to you?”
Ellen studied the coin closely. She did not seem scared, but confused and distracted. Ellen walked towards her window and shut it tightly before leaning towards Nadir and whispering. “I don’t remember much, especially not a coin, but I do remember a house.” she said.
“We stopped at this house. It was a great house, the largest I had seen in the city that was not a lord’s manor. It was in the Merchant’s District. It had beautiful steel gates and a balcony overlooking the city at the front. I was carried out of a cart and felt as though I was floating. The boy who carried me was so strong and I remember watching his messy hair blow in the wind. He sat me up in a wooden chair and he gave me the note.”
“The Antinnan note?”
“Yes…but that is all I can remember, Nadir. You must believe me.”
“I do,” he said. “And I will not tell a soul, but I need to know where this house is. If we can find the house, then maybe whoever owns the house is responsible. You said it was the largest in the Merchant’s District?”
“Okay, then I will find it, but I will not say anything more. Your family will be safe, I promise you.”
Ellen scoffed. “Nadir, how can you promise that? In a city like this? In a war-obsessed Kingdom? I have shared my secret with you, and I thank you for listening, but now you should go.”
Nadir nodded and climbed out of the window. Sir Bethan was beneath him and seemed prepared to catch him so Nadir got to the lower ledge and hopped down and his waist was caught in the knight’s arms before being brought carefully to the ground.
“Well?” Sir Bethan said.
Nadir nodded, eager not to break his promise to Ellen. After a few minutes, they heard the door close behind Jerimeh who greeted them in the alleyway.
“Your worship, we have to go to the Merchant’s District. We need to go to the largest house there.”
“What did you learn, lad?”
“I cannot say. I made a promise to Ellen. All I can do is take you to the house.”
“And this house, is this the house of the Merchant we seek?”
“I did not say that,” Nadir said without averting his gaze from Jerimeh’s.
“The most prosperous street is called Saffron Street. We could start there.”
In their hoods and cloaks, they navigated the alleyways to stay hidden. Jerimeh walked as fast as he was able, and he was lucky that Smiths were not poor people in this city, there was always work for a man on Smithsrow who could hammer steel and so the Merchant’s District was only a few streets away. It was the hills that hurt Jerimeh’s bones and made his joints creak, and the chill in the night air did not help. It was not long before the homes started to grow larger and larger, until they finally reached Saffron Street. All of the houses here were equally large, and looked very similar to Nadir, until eventually Sir Bethan pulled them into a side alley as gently as he could and pointed at the house opposite. The house he pointed out was far larger than any others that they had seen. It rose above the hill and loomed large over the city. It was a surprise that they had not spotted it sooner, but its large steel gates and garden full of trees protected its grandiosity. Nadir stared at it. It was exactly as Ellen described it and even had a large balcony that extended from what appeared to be the master bedroom.
Standing on the balcony was a slim figure. At first, Nadir thought it was a girl not too much older than Ellen, but as they looked for longer, they realised that this was a woman and not a girl. Nadir was convinced that he had seen this woman before, but he could not place her. In the dim light, her hair looked black, but it could have easily have been a darker shade of brown. Nadir thought they would have to move closer to the house in order to identify her, but before he could suggest it, he watched Jerimeh stand transfixed upon the woman, as if he was looking at her with equal parts confusion and anger. Nadir realised that Jerimeh knew who this was, and his investigation into Queen Lorne’s death may still live.
“Your worship…do you know this woman?” Sir Bethan asked.
“Yes, Sir Bethan. Yes I do.”